By Christy Lemire
AP Movie Critic
Hollywood is full of liars, back-stabbers, sycophants, would-be power players and rampant egomaniacs. And your point is ... what? In skewering the movie business, "What Just Happened" treads delicately and benignly on some pretty well-trampled territory, but offers no new insights.
Bruce Willis, for example, plays a bloviating version of himself, an overweight diva who grows a Grizzly Adams-style beard and then throws a tantrum in the wardrobe room when he's asked to shave it off. This is intended as biting humor.
It comes from people who've been around a long time, so there's no doubt they know their way around these parts. Barry Levinson ("Diner," "Rain Man," "Wag the Dog") directs. Longtime producer Art Linson ("The Untouchables," "Fight Club," "Into the Wild") wrote the script based on his memoir of the same name. And Robert De Niro stars as the Linson figure, a middle-aged producer juggling actors and agents with ex-wives and kids.
You just wish these veterans had used their collective decades of experience to come up with fresher, sharper satire. Maybe that's impossible, though. The navel-gazing is so commonplace now - look no further than the continued existence of HBO's "Entourage" - that it's long since grown tiresome.
Truly, does anybody east of Barstow care about traffic patterns on the 405? That's the freeway where De Niro's character, Ben, repeatedly finds himself as he shuttles among various studio lots, restaurants and women.
Ben is the producer of an action picture called "Fiercely," which stars Sean Penn and is scheduled to premiere on opening night of the Cannes Film Festival. But brash, bad-boy British director Jeremy (Michael Wincott) refuses to recut it, even after it tests horrifically, in the name of clinging to his artistic integrity. (Maybe it was that last scene, in which Penn's dog gets shot in the head, that turned the audience off - it's worse than the response to "Medellin.")
So Ben must simultaneously appease him and the tough-as-nails studio chief, Lou (Catherine Keener, who's quite good in her chilly understatement), while also massaging the egos of stars such as Willis and his nervous agent, Dick (John Turturro), who's dapper on the outside but wrenched with abdominal agony on the inside.
The result of withdrawal from his antidepressants, the pain causes him to double over and vocally retch. The gag isn't particularly funny the first time.
Meanwhile, Ben is vaguely trying to reconcile with his second ex-wife, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn). Or maybe he's just trying to get back in the sack with her - it's never quite clear. He's also halfheartedly trying to keep an eye on his teenage daughter from his first marriage (Kristen Stewart), who's got some mysterious boy trouble. Repeatedly, though, he chooses to take a phone call from some agent, executive or pampered star when he should be focusing on the real people in his life.
The potential for growth or change seems impossible, and so there's no shot at redemption, and therefore no real drive to the narrative. The main source of conflict seems to be: What will happen with the final cut of "Fiercely"?
It's a battle that's waged in spacious offices and cramped editing bays and on ever-present cell phone headsets. But everyone is so shallow, self-serving and narcissistic, there isn't a single person worth caring about.
Levinson seems to have felt compelled to add life to the proceedings through sped-up sequences on the streets of Los Angeles, which instead feels like cheap filler.
De Niro does do some of his best work in a while, though, a welcome change from his recent dreary thrillers like "Righteous Kill," "Hide and Seek" and "Godsend." He dials down the repressed rage that has so often turned him into a caricature of himself, and he reminds you that, lo and behold, he can still show some flashes of charisma. If only it had happened in a more worthwhile endeavor.
- "What Just Happened," a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R for language, some violent images, sexual content and some drug material.
- Running time: 110 minutes.
- One and a half stars out of four.